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Good Music

In response to:

What Rights Should Children Have? from the September 23, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

May I say a word with respect to some of Paul Goodman’s observations about music, in his excellent piece about children [NYR, September 23].

I don’t know what makes some music better than others, but I don’t think complexity is it. If it were, we would have to acknowledge the music of, say, Elliott Carter as very much better than the music of Beethoven. I don’t believe it is, and I’m sure Paul Goodman doesn’t.

I was talking to a musician once about some of the needless complexity in Carter’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, of which I happened to see a couple of pages of the score. He replied that another composer, whose name I have forgotten, had just written an orchestral piece which was vastly more complicated even than Carter’s.

And I remember reading somewhere that one of the disciples of Milton Babbitt said worshipfully that there were more mathematical relationships in a single note of Babbitt’s music than in a whole symphony of Mozart. The statement is in all probability nonsense, but this is in the first place not a sensible way to talk about music.

Since I love a good deal of what is called classical music, both old and modern, I am eager to have young people hear it and like it. I find the chances of this happening are very much better if I refrain from beginning by telling them how much “better” is the music I like than whatever music they happen to like. If young people seem, as much as Paul Goodman thinks they do, to have their minds closed to things he thinks are beautiful and important, some of the fault may lie in the way he presents them. I don’t think many people are converted to anything while being firmly gripped by the scruff of the neck.

John Holt

Boston, Massachusetts

Paul Goodman replies:

So far as I remember—I don’t have my text here—I didn’t say that better music is “more complex” but that “more happens in it.” In essential ways it is usually simpler. It by-passes routines, leaves out frills, uses only the conventions that work for it. It says its say more directly. And the writing is more masterly, definite, and pure. Thus it provides a better Gestalt and so can convey what is unique, original, unfamiliar, not dissipated by noise.

Those who use music as background or to send them to other states do not need intense musical experience. But those who hunger for music soon find most popular music boring.

None of this is newsy and John must know it. But he goes off on tangents and does not stop to read closely or think it over.

The matter of the scruff of the neck is more interesting. I don’t think I ever tried to “convert” anybody to anything. As I said in that essay, there are far too many missionaries and schoolteachers abroad. But the pedagogic advantage of taking a kid by the scruff of the neck—as of arousing shame, which was the method of Socrates—is that it may permit an inkling of self-doubt to arise in the self-righteous adolescent mind. At least the youth feels that he is attended to and not catered to.

Needless to say, it can easily be overdone. Among human beings it is an act of annoyance, though mother cats use it on all occasions. I said that I did it when I was annoyed. People who are often annoyed, like me, should not be schoolteachers.

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